Virtual Business Networking

Does virtual business networking work? Here’s my experience after being a member of LinkedIn for a year and a half.

LinkedIn sent me an email alert the other day. Two former colleagues had come across my name in the network and wanted to know if I would like to connect to their business circles. LinkedIn conveniently serves up the names of everybody in the network who identifies themselves as having worked for any of the former employers you list in your personal profile. My LinkedIn home page tells me that there are 50 people I may know at my former company VERITAS Software (now Symantec),
and others in the network from my now defunct companies, SmartAge and Niehaus Ryan Wong. It even tells me how many new people from those companies have joined since I last logged in.

Up until recently people were saying that the social networking “clubs” aren’t useful for anything beyond dating and keeping up with friends, but I’ve got to tell you that my dance card has been filling up lately with colleagues I thought were long lost. It was less than a month ago that two other lost colleagues tracked me down. It’s almost like bumping into people on the street, only its virtual.

Most of my associates have moved on to interesting new jobs as they’ve climbed the corporate ladder. Some have stayed with dot-coms, others with the Fortune 500s, and some are re-entering the tech industry after several years’ hiatus while they rode out the downturn. I have to wonder how else we would have tracked each other down after all these years and our hectic work schedules if not for this online business network that seems to exponentially grow every time I log in? Today, LinkedIn tells me that since I last logged in a couple of days ago there are 15,529 new people associated with my current 31 direct connections.

I haven’t used the network to its full advantage. I’m like the wall-flower at the dance who sits patiently hoping to be asked. Others I know have been more proactive and have contacted me to get to a business or job prospect three or four degrees removed from them. These are the more enterprising people in my immediate circle of 31 direct contacts. The network map tells them that I am connected to the next person closest to their target, and so they ask me to make an introduction to that person who will in turn be asked to make an introduction to the next person closest to the target.

A couple of months ago, a woman who sits with me on the Board of a software organization approached me in her quest to get to someone four degrees separated from her. It was fascinating to me that her network chain identified my connection to Anne Holland, publisher of MarketingSherpa. Anne won’t be happy with me saying that we used to work together in Washington DC at a magazine called Defense & Foreign Affairs in the 1980s. We haven’t seen each other since, but she and I linked via the network about a year ago when I came across her name. Yes, I was proactive that time.

Most people join these networks because someone they know sends them an invitation to join the network. I signed up after a client invited me into his “network.” How could I refuse?

There are others out there like Spoke Software, which is also great for sales prospecting and lead generation, at least according to the articles I have read. I think I am a member of that one too because at one point a client of mine was talking about partnering with them. I can only handle one of these networks at a time so I am focusing on LinkedIn unless someone makes a compelling argument for why I should have more. It’s kind of like a loyalty program in that if I am going to grow my circle of contacts I want to see all my miles, er people, accounted for in one place.

An Awkward Moment
I can see where I might get into a bit of an awkward situation as more people start using this network. What will I do if someone that I don’t really want to be linked to invites me to connect? I guess I can just ignore it and pretend that I didn’t see the invitation, but I still bristle when I remember the one person who never replied to my invitation a year ago — did they do that intentionally or did it get routed to junk mail? I will never know because I don’t have the guts to ask. Then there’s the added inconvenience of having to write recommendations for people to connect with the next person in the chain of linked connections. And what do I do if someone in my circle gets tied to a scandal or big, public SEC investigation, for example? Do I have the courage to dis-invite them? No probably not, so I guess I will forever be tied to them in the hall of infamy.

Aside from those troublesome concerns, I am quite happy to be one of the first to explore this new medium. LinkedIn calls me a Beta subscriber, which I think means I get the service for free until they decide how to charge for it. A while back they sent me a questionnaire asking how much I would be willing to pay for each connection. At the time I thought I would pay $5 or $10 to keep it a somewhat exclusive club. Yeah, money talks!

So now I’m still waiting for someone to track me down from my former company Worldview Systems. We were a tight-knit bunch all working in the trenches 10 years ago together to launch Travelocity. My one remaining friend from those days isn’t even on LinkedIn. Yes, I guess I could take the initiative and invite her.

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